Historical Artists | Visual Arts

Flowers and Feuds Part 3: Surviving the Legislative Response

“Haystacks” by Edwin Evans, courtesy Utah Arts Council

The first part of this history of the early days of the Utah Arts Council appeared in our November 2008 edition.
The second part appeared in our January 2009 edition.

At the end of the internal struggles that disrupted the Utah Art Institute between 1902 and 1904, the “American-trained” camp seemed to be triumphant. They had succeeded in the courts, and now controlled the governing board of the organization. In the fall of 1904, the Institute held its annual exhibition in Ogden, under the direction of Culmer and Ottinger, whose works dominated the exhibition. The “French school” was glaringly absent from the exhibit. The only works by Mary Teasdel or Edwin Evans were ones loaned by collectors. Lee Greene Richards and Alma B. Wright, recently returned from their studies in Europe, did exhibit, and Wright’s portrait of “Miss Richards” (Blanche, Hattie Harwood’s younger sister) won the prize. The judges — J. Albert Howell, W.M. Gotwaldt and W. McKell Hughes – who came from outside the Institute, awarded the prize in watercolor to Culmer’s “The Forest Path” and recommended Ottinger receive special recognition for his historical pieces.

The American camp’s hold on the Insititute was short lived. In 1904, the Republican nomination for governor passed by Heber M. Wells after he lost the favor of the Federal Bunch – the political machine headed by Reed Smoot that controlled the GOP in Utah. The Bunch’s new favorite, John C. Culter, won the nomination and then the general election, and in 1905 he replaced all the previous members of the governing board except for S.T. Whitaker. To the board the new governor appointed: J. Leo Fairbanks and A.B. Wright, recently returned from studies in Paris; John Hafen, who had supported Fairbanks and Evans in the controversy of 1903; Mrs. Virginia S. Stephen, an instructor at the University who had worked with Evans on an instruction manual for drawing; and Miss Margaret Keogh, a young artist from Salt Lake. For the rest of the decade the governing board would be dominated by the Paris-trained school of artists. These artists also dominated that year’s annual exhibit. J. B. Fairbanks had the largest exhibit of works. A.B. Wright, who won the bronze medal for his miniature of “Miss Q,” exhibited 13 pieces. J. Henri Moser made his debut. Lee Greene Richards and Mahonri Young both exhibited, the latter winning the prize for watercolor. Neither Culmer nor Ottinger exhibited that year, and don’t seem to have participated in the Institute exhibits for the rest of the decade. Edwin Evans, one of the artists who had contended for the controversial prize of 1903, received the state prize of $300 fo his “Idlers.”

The internal struggles of the Utah Art Institute had played out in the public eye and as a result the organization faced serious legislative threats over the next few years. The first came in 1905, when some members of the legislature, with the support of the Salt Lake Herald, claimed that the taxpayers were not receiving a fair value for their investment and that the Institute was plagued by conflicts of interest. One bill proposed the abolition of the organization, while a compromise bill suggested folding the Alice Art Collection into a state art collection to be housed at the University of Utah. Both bills, however, were squashed by the Senate education committee, and neither came to a vote.

A legislative threat in 1907 was more serious. That year the legislature met in the midst of a recession and a stock market slide that would result in the panic of 1907 that fall. In these unsteady economic times, a bill was once again introduced to completely abolish the organization. The artists met the legislative threat headon and even had the audacity to ask the legislature to increase their appropriation. The previous December the church-owned Deseret News had run a large feature spread on the Utah artists, including reproductions of their works. To this tacit church support of the artists, Joseph F. Smith, President of the church at the time, added the offer of the use of the church-owned Social Hall as a venue for a permanent exhibition of paintings. The excited artists (in the form of the Society of Utah Artists) had immediately embraced the idea, announcing that they planned to remodel the aging building with a façade of Greek-style architecture. Consequently, at the 1907 legislative session they requested an additional appropriation of $1000 of state funds to be combined with the church’s $2500 contribution.

With the support of the House speaker, Republican Harry S. Joseph, the bill to abolish the Institute made it out of committee and onto the floor of the House. The threat was serious enough that other organizations in the community came out in public support of the Institute. The faculty at Brigham Young Academy sent an open letter opposing the bill. The Real Estate Board and the Manufacturers and Merchants Association, who had used the Institute’s collection of art at their large exposition the previous year and who recognized the economic value art brought to the community, also objected to the bill.

When it came to a vote, despite having been brought forward by the majority Republican party and championed by the party’s leader, the bill lost in a 30 to 15 vote (the Social Hall appropriation, however was not made; the Society of Utah Artists continued to lease the building for a time, however; and the LDS church continued to support the idea of a permanent exhibition of art in the city – in 1910 Bisohp C. W. Nibley offered the use of the Vernon Building, where the statewide annual was held that year, as an additional space for a permanent exhibition).

After passing through these legislative rapids, the Utah Art Institute faced relatively calm waters for the rest of the decade; and their example spurred the launching of numerous other enterprises to support the arts. In 1908, Mary Teasdel helped form an Arts and Crafts club, which held weekly meetings and sponsored live models. In 1909, the Commercial club held an exhibit of J.T. Harwood’s 24 watercolors of Liberty park scenery. Private individuals and public organizations also continued to use the annual exhibition as an opportunity to give awards of their own, sponsoring prizes in architecture, the decorative arts and fine arts. In 1908, the Springville Museum began offering a $150 prize for the best painting. Some years the total number of award money came close to $1000. The principal prize continued to be the $300 annual purchase award: Lee Greene Richards, Donald Beauregard, and Edwin Evans all received awards in the second half of the decade.

In 1909, legislation approved by the newly elected governor William Spry, increased the number of awards and overall appropriation to be given at the Institute’s annual exhibition. It also changed the awarding process. The Governor was charged with canvassing the members of the Institute for their votes on the best work. It may have kept the artists from taking each other to court, but the canvassing system had glitches of its own. In the first year, at the end of a month of canvassing for votes, the third place prize for the best watercolor was still undecided. Harwood and Browning had each having received the same number of votes. The Governor’s relatively simple solution was to invite the artists to his office and ask them to draw straws from a broom — much easier than fighting the issue out in the courts. Harwood won.

In its first decade, the Utah Art Institute, the country’s first state-sponsored arts organization, managed to survive the internal frictions resulting from personal rivalries and untested procedures and the external pressures of shifting political opinions and uncertain economic times. Over the following decades it continued to thrive and spur on cultural activity in the state. In the uncertain economic times of the Great Depression it even expanded its role to encompass the literary and performing arts and became known as the Utah Arts Council.

The founder of Artists of Utah and editor of its online magazine, 15 Bytes, Shawn Rossiter has undergraduate degrees in English, French and Italian Literature and studied Comparative Literature in graduate school before pursuing a career in art.

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